Tokyopop OEL — Able to Create a Satisfying Ending? (Includes Dramacon 3 Review)

I’ve been thinking lately, as Tokyopop’s OEL series come to their ends, about whether these young creators have been given the help and support they need. Tokyopop claims shared copyrights on these works, for which one presumes they had some input into them. (The suspicious say that it’s just a way to manipulate creators unaware of their business choices and take more profit and control from them.) However, judging solely by the way I’ve found the final series volumes severely disappointing, the editors aren’t providing the guidance or story feedback that would help create satisfying resolutions.

Please note that I’m looking here only at those series I cared enough to buy. I welcome additional input on the subject, especially if someone has a complete listing of Tokyopop books considered Original English Language manga (OEL, or manga-styled works created by non-Japanese in English).

The general expectation for these graphic novel series was three books. However, some have been truncated. Let’s start with those:

Sorcerers and Secretaries, by Amy Kim Ganter. The first book was one of my top ten reads of 2006 due to its charming blend of fantasy and romance. The second book I couldn’t even recommend, because of its change in tone, its unrealistic instant solution to every plot conflict, the leaden exposition, and the use of stereotypical motivation and resolution. In short, all of its charm had gone “poof”.

Divalicious! Book 2 cover
Divalicious! Book 2
Buy this book

In that case, I’ve gotten the (completely baseless) impression that the author either chose to end with only two volumes or didn’t mind. In another case, that of Divalicious!, the creators have made it clear that ending at book two wasn’t their choice, saying that Tokyopop made the decision for “fiscal reasons“.

Writer T Campbell went on to say that they were told that they weren’t getting a third volume only after they finished book two, although he praises their editor for being helpful under the circumstances. I don’t know that I would have guessed plans were abbreviated, just from the story. It’s pretty jumpy and episodic, but it’s always been that way. It’s almost ADD, just like its star and the entertainment world she inhabits.

The remaining series I’m going to talk about went three books. Or are assumed to, anyway. Off*Beat book one came out in 2005, with book two in 2006. Artist Jen Lee Quick says book three is due August 2008. She also says that her plans for it have changed based on changes in her personal life. Hopefully, that pulls the story together more tightly, since it’s always been kind of desultory in execution.

Also rescheduled is Steady Beat. The series has improved with every book, so I’m greatly anticipating it, even though it has no definite date yet. I had similar high hopes for Dramacon, which second volume was also one of my best of 2006. Unfortunately, I found the concluding book a huge disappointment.

I was looking forward to seeing how Christie and Matt finally get together, since that’s the purpose of any good romance story. Sadly, the book opens with some of that having already taken place. They reconnect online, and we’re told about some of their relationship development as having already happened. (Other of the supporting character plot points are only answered in a last-page text FAQ.) When we do see them together, they fight for what strike this reader as artificial reasons. Plus, instead of rewarding those who’ve been following their trials and tribulations with the satisfaction of watching them get to the happy relationship and then wallowing in it, much of the story focuses on other characters entirely.

Dramacon Book 3 cover
Dramacon Book 3
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The book I wanted was a fitting conclusion to the events of books one and two. The book we get reads like a Comic Party knock-off. Wacky group of pals goes to convention, has adventures, tries to follow the creative life. Much of it is about Beth’s struggles to be honest with her mother about her desire to be an artist. Beth’s a great character (she’s the artist on Christie’s comic from book two) and it’s a conflict many readers can likely identify with, but that’s not the series I signed on for. All of that should have been a spin-off from the main story. (Or if this had been more like a manga series, with more than three books possible in the series, then it would have been a welcome addition to the series depth.)

Changing the focus from relationship to artistic struggle is the same problem that plagued Sorcerers and Secretaries, you will recall. There’s a lot of truth in “write what you know”, but there are already way too many comics out there by young creators who know nothing but trying to get published. When confronted with one, I recommend they get some life experience and then write about something other than creating comics. Maybe that’s some of what gets in the way of writing believable happy endings. And keeping characters three-dimensional instead of them falling flat in the last act.

In Dramacon book three, there’s even a panel where one of the characters complains to the artist that “This is a little too perfect and convenient. Where is the tension? Where is the drama? I call bad writing.” Recognizing the problem and trying to poke fun at it doesn’t excuse its existence. There’s still a lot good here, but I had hopes (led on by the first two volumes) of so much more.

Let’s see, what else? I started reading The Dreaming, an historical goth murder mystery, but found that the atmosphere took such precedence over anything actually happening that I gave up before its third book conclusion. Anyone want to tell me whether it was satisfying? Then there’s Fool’s Gold, which disappointed me from the beginning (due to my excessively high expectations) but may wind up being the most consistent of them all in keeping the same level of general quality.

For many of these creators, these books were their first professional works. (Many had previously done webcomics, but those don’t have publishers or deadline demands or people paying money to read them.) I would have hoped that the publisher could combine the artists’ energy and imagination with more experienced guidance on structure and story development. However, that assumes that the editors were asked to do more than just traffic pages and serve as company contact. And that the editors themselves had the knowledge to share and the willingness and ability to request revisions. But multiple drafts would have cost the company and/or the artists more, cutting the profit margin on what were already risky investments.

Similar Posts: Viz or Tokyopop? § Tokyopop Enters Digital Comics With OEL Manga § Jen Lee Quick Still Plans to Continue Off*Beat § New Comics Unlimited Column § More on Tokyopop’s Online OEL Manga and Print on Demand Plans

23 Comments

  1. Quick comments on what I can remember of THE DREAMING vol.3 (it’s too late in the evening here to get up and find the damn thing) – IMO, can be summed up as “disappointing”. I’d rather enjoyed the author’s creation of atmosphere in the earlier part of the story – an isolated boarding school, cut off from anywhere by miles of dense bush, in the middle of falling rain and darkness (or perhaps, one sequence suggested, in the middle of NOwhere?) – genuinely and powerfully creepy. However, as you say, it did come to take precedence over the story, with the result that the story’s “resolution” – in quotes because it was extremely ambiguous, in a way I think Queenie Chan didn’t quite pull off – had to be crammed into the last half of this last volume, with lots of exposition in the clunkiest “tell not show” mode.

    Two other minor points also irritated me somewhat. (1) Ms Anu is presumably supposed to be a young Indigenous / Aborigine woman, but this is nowhere clearly stated, and her sudden knowledge of Aboriginal legends – it’s also not clear whether they’re genuine, or invented for the needs of the story – isn’t consistent with anything in her character or background. (2) This one is really picky, and I loved the Victorian-gothic look Ms Chan gave her schoolgirl spooks, but… it turns out the backstory was supposed to take place in the 1920s! Bustles and crinolines were museum pieces by then. Surely a visit to a well-stocked research library could have provided ideas for a decorative but at least vaguely relevant fashion sense?

    Overall, I’d say nice try – and that Ms Chan should definitely *keep* trying – but that a firm editorial hand was badly needed. The kind manga editors in Japan provide, in fact.

    ps: as I say, all the above is from memory, so I’m happy to accept correction where appropriate.

  2. Woah, sorry to hear that JennyN didn’t find vol3 of “The Dreaming” a good read – most of the teen audience for the book really enjoyed the series. To each their own, I guess. At least the core audience enjoyed it.

    “The Dreaming” is far from perfect, though I’m afraid the idea that manga editors from Japan can apply a firmer editorial hand is a joke. Japan’s manga works that way because its chapters are released weekly – that alone changes the way that a story is written. No one cares whether a single takouban can be read steand-alone – it’s not MEANT to be read by itself. And these stories can go on indefinately.

    People working in the OEL format don’t have this freedom, and they were relatively-inexperienced authors working in a publishing format that hasn’t been done before. If you have to compare the results of that with the Japanese, who have a different system, OR with American graphic novels, which again has a different system AND different story-telling styles, then OFCOURSE it’s going to fall short.

    I’m not saying it’s not possible to create a satisfying story from the 3-book OEL format, but at this point in time, it’s just asking too much. I know that if I had to do “The Dreaming” again, it would be told very differently. I learned a great deal about working in this new format from “The Dreaming” – in my mind, it’s simply “the story I had to have”, because it’s a learning experience. All publishing formats have its own quirks, which have to learned over time.

    Anyway, to answer your questions:
    1) Most Australians would have known Miss Anu was aboriginal from the start. Nearly all black people in Australia would be considered aboriginal. And all aboriginals know about “The Dreaming”. It’s part of their culture. In fact, nearly all Australians would have picked up the aboriginal connotations of the story from the title “The Dreaming”.
    2) No clothing in the story is historically accurate, nor meant to be. The whole thing is fantasy. Certainly this was obvious from volume 1?

  3. Joanna’s negatives weren’t on the art or writing per se, but on story construction, which SHE found inadequate.
    I think that was the point of this article: working with relatively inexperienced creators on a relatively new format, this inexperience could and should have been supplemented with experienced editing.

    I’d think that the three volume tankoubon format actually gives greater opportunities for editorial control than the Japanese weekly serial. With the TP production process, you’ve got to have a finished plot outline and script before a single page is drawn. The editor can see the work’s entire scope and sculpt accordingly, as often happens with traditional book publishers. Of course, this is the ideal situation, barring changing scripts mid-book or cancelling a series in the middle of the story’s run, as happened with Divalicious.

    And really, the 3-volume book format isn’t that new. Most modern mainstream fantasies, both literary and cinema, are plotted as trilogies. And satisfying stories can be fitted to almost any format- one volume, two volume, whatever.

    I would have found it flattering if Johanna had high expectations of my work, even if she was ultimately disappointed, because it indicates that she believes in the creator’s potential. And really, the post is encouraging in tone: these are new artists who’ve got loads of talent, they just need more guidance, or freedom, etc.

  4. [...] Draper Carlson takes a critical look at some of Tokyopop’s global [...]

  5. I know nothing about these books but did want to comment on the main subject – inexperienced writers who don’t get support.

    That is one of my fear in trying to break into the market (I write). I think I’m a good writer but really it takes years of practical experience to know how to construct a comic story, manga or otherwise. There’s a certain pacing, set-up, and resolution expectation that is implicit to the medium.

    I try my best when I’m writing to accomplish those goals but I know I need an editor who, when it comes time for me to get published, will take the time (and have the balls) to tell me when something is flat, or doesn’t ring true, or lacks “umph”. Being too close to the material is probably the worst handicap and a fresh set of eyes who understands what a comic is all about can really help a comic excel.

  6. That’s where courses can come in handy, or if you’re really ambitious, hiring a freelance editor with lots of experience.

  7. Queenie Chan wrote:

    1) Most Australians would have known Miss Anu was aboriginal from the start. Nearly all black people in Australia would be considered aboriginal. And all aboriginals know about “The Dreaming”. It’s part of their culture. In fact, nearly all Australians would have picked up the aboriginal connotations of the story from the title “The Dreaming”.

    Well, yes, I had picked all that up – seeing that I’m living in Australia, though not Australian. Might I suggest, however, that it might be useful to provide a little more context for a (hopefully) international audience? Entertain AND educate!

    2) No clothing in the story is historically accurate, nor meant to be. The whole thing is fantasy. Certainly this was obvious from volume 1?

    It was. And I’m happy for creators to take a great deal of latitude in matters like costuming – who can forget THE ROSE OF VERSAILLES, with the Comte Mercy in full Victorian dress and sideburns at the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette? Nevertheless, I do – and I recognise this is a personal nitpick – get annoyed when TV or film directors, authors OR manga creators just assume that everything before, say, 1970s can be lumped together as The Olden Days, when anything goes. (And it’s not just me – there were quite a few reviews of EMMA, for instance, which picked up on the fact that one character has a model airplane, well before the airplane itself was invented. The mangaka apparently consulted a historical expert on the Victorian era beyond her Vol.2 stories to avoid just such bloopers).

    As I said, Queenie, I enjoyed quite a lot about THE DREAMING. It’s simply that I did feel some elements could have been tackled more effectively. Meantime, I’ll be looking out for your next work – support for Aussie creators! – and wish you all the best.

  8. Thanks for clearing that up, JennyN. I’m glad you did get something out of “The Dreaming”, and it’s true I probably should have made it easier for an international audience to understand the part about aboriginal folklore. Truth is, my editor mentioned it, but after some thought I decided not to put it in because it’s meant to be a FULLY Australian story, and if an international audience wants to know about something, they can always go online to do research. In fact, alot of younger readers already did that, emailing me about it. I thought it was a good way to encourage people to learn about something they didn’t know enough about.

    That said, it’s perfectly true that the 3-book format isn’t new at all in modern novels. It IS new from what I and most people know about MANGA though. I understand that Johanna is speaking about the editors and not the writers, but being the only person on the reply page who’ve actually done an OEL manga, I’ve found that theory is one thing, and practice is another. I believe the editors found so too – because I believe I DID have good editors who tried their best to give me good story, art and characterisation feedback.

    Sometimes though, real life gets in the way, and TOKYOPOP had to do alot of restructuring and staff organising to start producing original manga. “The Dreaming”, for one, had THREE different editors, which should tell you something (one for each volume?). My second editor Carol Fox was the best and longest one, and she picked up mid-way through book1, and then had to leave the company at the beginning of book3. It was nobody’s fault that these reshuffles happened – people come and go and there’s nothing a company can do about it. (“Dramacon” had the same editor throughout though, as did some others, but then there are yet other OEL stories who couldn’t because people leave and work gets redistributed)

    So in terms of editing, the story may not be that simple. An editor may be good, but they may not be the editor who signed on the story (as in my case). I felt the need to speak in defence of my ex-editor Carol for that reason (who’s now working at Viz), and only because real life gets in the way.

  9. As a creator, I think it’s a little too convenient to blame company editors when a story falls short of its goal. Seriously, it’s not the editor’s fault if your story flops. It’s 90% your fault( The other 10% is the marketing dept’s fault :P).

    The only thing editors are supposed to do is to offer suggestions and alternative choices to help steer your story into a marketable position. And you are not even obliged to follow those suggestions. And hey, most of these editors are newbies themselves!

    I think it’s more of a boon than a curse to have little to no editorial support. If a company tells me that they won’t be giving me an editor, I’d be stark raving overwhelmed with happiness because that would mean I’ll have 100% EDITORIAL AND CREATIVE CONTROL. Frankly I do not want to share even 1% of that control with anyone.

    I’d rather have a proofreader than an editor, mind you. Proofreaders at least make my grammar spotless. But I’d seriously not want to draw a giant 10-foot donkey because my editor said it’s hot with the kids these days.

  10. It sounds like you’ve never seen how beneficial a good, respectful editor/creator relationship can be. (Or that you’re just determined to go it alone, damn the consequences.) A good editor isn’t trying to make you’re work “hotter” or “more marketable” — they’re trying to make sure that the story you have in your head makes sense to others once it gets to the page.

  11. Oh, I know how it’s like to have a great editor. I’ve worked with a few fantastic editors whom I love to death. But in cases where I don’t have the luxury of working with a brilliant editor, I don’t sit in the corner and cry foul on how I was being mistreated.

    As a creator/writer/artist, it’s my job first and foremost to make sure my work makes sense to everyone.

  12. I can’t speak for other creators, but I wanted to jump in and let you know that the decision to have S&S be two books instead of three was my own. Tokyopop was nice enough to allow me that decision.

    When the pitching process started, I wanted the book to be only two books long, like one of my favorite Korean comics “Unplugged Boy”. However, they had the requirement of three. So, I tried to stretch out the story to three and that what makes the pacing in book one a little choppy. Then, after realizing that I didn’t have enough to story to fullfill their requirements, I asked that I go back to my original plan of two. They said ok. So that’s why book 2 is all rushed and compact. Plus, like Jen, I went through a lot of changes at the time. The story is a reflection of a year of falling in love, pondering the nature of creativity in relationships, and realizing that I’d rather be a prose writer.

    I don’t mean to say this in “defense”, because the book is out already and it is what it is. It’s just what happened in case you were curious. Nice article, by the way.

  13. Ah… sorry don’t mean to flood your blog, but I mean to say I like the part about the relationships between publisher/artist.

    However, I have to say that I loved Dramacon 3, particularly for the story of Beth. That part made me seriously tear up, great pacing and characterization. It proved to me how much empathy Svetlana has for her characters, and I can’t wait to see her carry some of that into her next series, Night School.

    Also, my husband and I talk a lot about burn out amongst artists. Our conclusion is the comics industry would fare much better with a place to serialize the stuff. Making graphic novels is like performing in a theater with no one watching. After doing it for a year or two, you’re likely to get burnt out and discouraged. This might explain why there’s so many bleeding heart/self-reflection stories coming out of graphic novels. No one’s watching while they create these books but themselves, so that’s the audience they’re playing for. I can safely say that is partly what happened to me anyway. And after writing prose, I have to say there’s much more of a performance aspect to comics than writing prose, in my limited experience so far, because you’re acting while you draw. The more editors we get that have the experience of making comics themselves, the better off the comics industry will be…

  14. Been chewing on this issue for a while, since it forced me to acknowledge my own fear of negative reviews. I can’t speak writing-wise, but I’ve found an editor’s eye on my art and storytelling invaluable. It’s really forced me to try things I wouldn’t otherwise have gone for, and go beyond my self-imposed limits. I wouldn’t necessarily apply their dictates to other projects, but I’m going along for the experience. Like Queenie, I worked with Carol Fox before she moved to Viz, so I can understand some of her issues, but my current editor is very good as well. I’ve got the fullest support for a strong- but not tyrannical- editorial hand.

  15. Perhaps one answer to dealing with corporate turnovers is to hire an additional editor yourself, or bribe a friend who’s got writing/ editing experience?

  16. Amy, thanks very much for satisfying my curiosity and adding your own experiences. I appreciate it.

    And yes, Tintin, if you have a skilled friend, that’s a great way to go.

  17. [...] of Tokyopop, Rivkah Greulich addresses some of the questions raised by Johanna Draper Carlson about Tokyopop’s handling of its young global manga [...]

  18. Rivkah’s followup comments can be found here.

  19. It does help to have a trusted someone to look over work for you, especially if you are getting little/no guidance from the company publishing your work.
    When I published with Image, I had no editor, because Image doesn’t do that. I got trusted friends (several who were published authors), named them the Fearless Readers, and threw my writing at them.
    Horribly, horribly embarrassing sometimes, especially my first tries, but invaluable.

    As for being difficult to tell a story in three volumes, pish-tosh, unless it is a five-volume story.

    Finally, the reason I serialize online is because it is VERY hard to work in and stay motivated in a vacuum. I do believe I will always insist that I do it this way. Unless I’m getting paid a page rate to motivate me, being able to share my work is a powerful motivator.

  20. [...] the Tokyopop OELs have been very hit and miss, and one of the reasons for that was pointed out by Johanna Draper Carlson at her blog, there isn’t a lot of contact between editor and creator, and it shows in the [...]

  21. [...] will be remembered at all? Even the best of the line were hampered by endings that, in my opinion, weren’t as strong as they should have been. (I have hopes that Steady Beat will still prove me wrong.) The books [...]

  22. [...] is a graduate of Toykopop’s school of hard knocks for young artists. Her previous series Dramacon is generally considered one of the few successes for Tokyopop’s line of original manga. Many [...]

  23. [...] as some artists realized that they no longer owned their work and began to regret the deals and control Tokyopop exercised. Several promising titles ended early, or not at [...]

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